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Win at Rockfish Fishing - Best Setups, Rigs, Tackle and Baits

Updated: Jan 27

Fishing for Rockfish is one of the most popular types of offshore and inshore saltwater fishing for West Coast boat, kayak, pier, and shore or rock-based anglers.

These deep water fish are fun to catch, don't require super-expensive equipment to target, and make incredible fish tacos – it’s no surprise that they’re a popular sport fish for many saltwater anglers in California, Oregon and Washington State. Alaksa, too.


In this article, we’ll talk about some of the best ways to catch rockfish on the West Coast including the best rigs, tackle, rods (poles), reels, livebait stinger rigs, double dropper loops, setups and tactics we use on professionally-hosted rockfish trips.

 

Rockfish Fishing Ultimate How-To Guide Index


Rockfish fishing
Rockfish Fishing on the West Coast in California, Oregon and Washington is a great way of getting prime ingredients for fish tacos!

Rockfish Fishing: Rockfish Basics & Handy Rockfish ID sheet


A bit of background information on rockfish, first. Rockfish are mostly members of the Sebaste family of finned-ray fishes, and they number more than 100 species in the Pacific Ocean and can be over 120 years old.


Slow-growing and living in deep, dark corners of rocky outcrops, they vary hugely in color, size and habitat preference.


The ID sheet below covering common rockfish (sometimes called groundfish) species is a handy starting point of reference for general rockfish fishing in California and Oregon.

rockfish fishing identification sheet species california

It's important you know what type of rockfish you're catching, because individual species have smaller bag limits or bans on retention all together. Bookmark this page and use it for reference next time you catch a rockfish species you don't know - it could save you a citation and big fine.


The two reference sheets below also provide a more detailed guide to some of the common nearshore (inshore) West Coast rockfish species found in California, Oregon and Washington, and how to correctly identify them.

rockfish fishing identification sheet species california
rockfish fishing identification sheet species california

Fish like lingcod, whitefish, sculpin, and scorpionfish are also often called rockfish and they’re all caught in a pretty similar way to rockfish. They're also managed in a similar way in many places, so knowing your species and associated laws is a good idea.

Sculpin fishing rockfish
Sculpin and other members of the scorpionfish family are also considered by some to be rockfish, and are caught on similar techniques

Best way to Catch Lots of Rockfish in California, Oregon, Washington


The best way to catch most rockfish species is by using a medium to medium-heavy-weight conventional combo and dropping a baited rig or lure from a boat or kayak to the bottom of a structured, rockly area of deep water.


This usually means fishing water hundreds of feet deep with a one or two-hook rig (known as a Single or Double Dropper Loop) baited with lures, live bait or cut bait, or a combination of these. You can do this from almost anywhere on the West Coast when the seasons allow.


Checking the regulations around the rockfish seasons and their various local variations before you start spending money on fish taco ingredients is a good first tip.

Rockfish caught on double dropper loop rigs
A vermillion (red) rockfish and salmon grouper rockfish caught on a sport boat rockfish fishing trip on the rigs described in this article.

The easiest option to catch rockfish in this style is to book a place on a partyboat (sportboat) like the one pictured below, or six-pack charter, and the captain will put you on some suitable grounds for targeting rockfish for the day.


Expect a very early start and reasonably long voyage to suitable deep water spots. A boat burger or breakfast burrito will help pass the time.


Make sure you always take proper sea sickness medication beforehand, is another good beginner rockfishing tip.

Rockfish fishing
A rockfish trip in California heading out to deep water at dawn in search of tasty fish tacos

The deckhands and hosts on board a party boat (called a head boat on the East Coast) will provide advice and practical help, too, with finding the best setups, rigs, and baits for that particular rockfish trip.


They want you to succeed, so follow their advice and ask if not sure about any aspect of what you're doing.


For example, ask what sinker size the deck hand recommends for your combo on that stop. Ask what bait they'd use if they were you. Ask them if you're using the right lure.


By the way, a nice tip at the end of the trip to any deckhand that assists you is considered great etiquette.

ling cod caught on a whitefish rockfish fishing
A nice lingcod that took a liking to a hooked whitefish live bait on a Daiwa Pacific trip out of San Diego, California

Landings and marinas up and down the West Coast, from San Diego to Alaska, will have specific half day, three quarter day, full day and overnight trips for rockfish when in season, and you can sail south out of San Diego into Mexican waters if the US rockfish season is closed.


So, your first step to starting rockfish fishing is to contact your local marina, landing, party boat, six-pack charter operator or friend with a boat, and see what they have to offer.


Western Outdoor News - California's oldest sporting newspaper - also hosts regular charters up and down the West Coast, and these are a great place to start if you're interested in learning how to start rockfishing.

Rockfish party boat fishing trip
A West Coast sport boat, or party boat, is a great way to start fishing for rockfish. You can also rent tackle and the deckhands will assist you.

Best Reels for Rockfish and Lingcod in Shallow and Deep Water


This style of fishing is pretty simple; you’re just dropping a bait down to the bottom in 100- to 600-feet of water, paying attention to keeping the bait and rig in the bite zone, and then reeling up a hooked rockfish or two if you’re doing everything right.


The best type of rod and reel for this style of rockfishing from a boat is a small to medium-size conventional reel, like a Penn Fathom II in 15 or 25 size or a similar reel.


This is the style of reel (conventional) that goes on top of the rod, by the way. This is the easiest type of reel to use for reeling up large sinkers and fish from deep water and it'll hold lots of line – both essential features.

best reel for rockfish fishing
A small to medium-size conventional reel like a Penn Fathom is the best type of reel to use for rockfish fishing on the West Coast

Make sure the rod is built for conventional reels, not a spinning reel, too.


Be aware that you’ll need at least 700- to 800-feet of line on your reel for fishing in some areas of the West Coast.


Your local coastal tackle shop will be sure to have a good supply of conventional reels suitable for your area’s style of fishing, but generally, a smaller reel around the 15 size will suffice for Southern California rockfishing in shallow water using smaller sinkers in the 4 to 12oz bracket.


The larger sizes, up to around the 25 or 30 size, work well for deeper water and bigger sinkers in more central and northerly areas where you'll need more (and heavier) line on your reel - up to 60lb.

 

Best type of Rod or Pole for Rockfish Fishing


Rod-wise, the best rods for rockfish fishing are in the medium to medium-heavy range and capable of handling sinkers up to 12, 14, 16 or even 32 ounces to cover most situations you’ll find yourself on the West Coast.


A great option for a range rods that covers everything you’ll need to do are the Penn Carnage Conventional West Coast models. Okuma, Calstar, Seeker and Daiwa also make fine rockfish poles. They don't need to be expensive or ultra-sophisticated.


As you’re not casting the sinker, you don’t have to match the lure rating on the rod to the size of sinker you’re planning to use. You'll handle big enough sinkers on a Medium or Heavy rod.

best rockfish fishing rod
Longer Medium to Medium Heavy-rated conventional rods are the best choice for general rockfish fishing

So, the best choice for an all round rockfish rod is a Medium to Medium-Heavy conventional model (with the reel on the top) in the 7- or 10-foot range that matches your chosen conventional reel and the main line it's spooled with.

 

Best Type of Line for Rockfish Fishing


The best line for rockfish fishing is braid because it has no stretch, which allows you to feel every bite and when you hit the bottom precisely. It's also thinner than mono of the same breaking strain, which is a big advantage fishing deep water.


For targeting small to medium size rockfish in shallow water with sinkers in the 2- to 12-ounce range, 30 to 40-pound braid works great.

line for rockfishing
The best line for rockfish fishing is braided main line like Izorline's Brutally Strong Spectra. The colored sections allow you to mark your depth, too

For deeper water, bigger lingcod and larger sinkers, especially in Central, Northern California, Oregon and Washington State, many experienced rockfish anglers employ up to 60- or 80-pound braid.


Keep in mind: the heavier the braid main line, the more sinker weight will be needed to keep your rig in position near the bottom in the current or on the drift.


Heavy mono main lines are not a good option for this reason. You'll need a much bigger sinker compared to using a thinner but equally as strong braid main line.


This is a really critical part of a rockfish setup to consider – your rig must be in the bite zone (near the fish-holding structure on or near the bottom, usually) as much as possible, and a thinner main line will help achieve this.


Using a short length of heavy mono between the braid main line and rig with hooks on is also a very good idea. This is sometimes called a topshot.


We recommend a 40-pound Izorline First String top shot for shallow water and smaller rockfish trips, and up to 60 or 80-pound mono for bigger fish in rockier environments.

best leader line for rockfish fishing Izorline
In addition to braided main line, it's a good idea to use a long mono top shot or abrasion leader. The added stretch helps too. We like using Izorline XXX Super Co-Polymer for general rockfishing and small lingcod.

Tie the mono to the braid with a back-to-back uni knot, or a Crazy Alberto knot. Use about 10- to 30-feet of mono for this section.


Mono also has lots of stretch so this can aid you by absorbing the head shakes and lunges of a large lingcod, for example.


Generally, rockfish don’t fight too hard so we don’t need to fish too heavy for them. Simple, reliable and effective is the best strategy.

 

Best Rigs for catching lots of big Rockfish, Lingcod and Whitefish (TONS of Fish Tacos!)


The best type of rig for all-round rockfish fishing from a boat or kayak, is a double or single dropper loop rig. These rigs will work great for any sort of rockfish fishing in California, Oregon or Washington.


A dropper loop is an easy-to-use rig with a swivel at the top to tie to your mainline, and a clip at the bottom to attach the sinker to, plus one or two branches of line with a hook and lures on each.

Try a ready-tied two-hook Double Dropper Loop HD (Heavy Duty) gangion rigs above, for example, tied on 40-pound leader line with luminous squid hoochie lures, glow-in-the-dark attractor beads and ultra-sharp 4/0 longshank hooks.


These are the best rigs and setups for any sort of rockfish, lingcod, whitefish and deep-drop fishing in California, Oregon, Alaska or Washington, and were developed by a professional angler and rockfish fishing trip host for maximum bites and limit-style fish taco meat in the cooler. Super easy to use, too.


Baited with strips of squid, squid heads (our favorite…) anchovy, sardine or any sort of cut bait, the Double Dropper Loop HD is an ideal all-round rig choice for anyone heading offshore to go rockfish fishing anywhere on the West Coast

Best rockfish rigs
ROCKFISH RIGS - Using glow-in-the-dark lures plus baits definitely catches more fish on sport boats - even if the bait is removed, you still have the lure to attract rockfish.

If the bait happens to be removed by a fish or pecked off by critters, the luminous squid hoochies still work as lures and continue to be effective fish-catchers, negating the need to reel up hundreds of feet to check your bait every time you miss a bite.


Rigs like this are simple to use, strong and hook plenty of rockfish of all species, like the one below, making them a great option for all levels and ages of angler.

best rockfish rigs
A single or double dropper loop catches rockfish of all shapes and sizes, making for fun and productive fishing. It's the ideal rig for anyone heading offshore to catch rockfish. Note the squid strip bait.

Best Baits, Lures and Jigs for big Rockfish, Lingcod and Whitefish


Bait is really important - the fresher and more visually appealing, the better!


Squid cut up into strips and heads are a standard rockfish bait, but live or cut sardines, mackerel or anchovy are also a good choice.

salmon grouper bocaccio rockfish caught on a dropper loop rig
A fine Bacaccio Rockfish (Salmon Grouper) caught on a small live anchovy bait in conjunction with a Double Dropper Loop rig

In-fact, small livebaits like anchovy often pick up large fish like the nice salmon grouper (Bocaccio rockfish) pictured above a little more readily, whilst the smaller fish fall to strips of cut bait and squid.


Overall, for maximum action and fish in the cooler, our favorite rockfish bait is a whole squid head with the attraction from the juices and visual allure of the tentacles.

Rockfish bait squid
The best rockfish bait for deep dropping is often a squid head, or strips of squid, fished on a single or double dropper loop rig. Frozen squid works well, but fresh is even better if you can get it.

You can also use large artificial baits like jigs, swimbaits, tube baits, feathers, flatfall jigs, knife jigs, spoons, or, our favorite – glow-in-the-dark squid hoochies.

vermillion rockfish caught on a large bait lure
A vermillion rockfish caught on a large artificial tube bait-style lure on the Island Spirit in California

Any of the bigger lures, like the green one in the image above, are best fished on a single dropper loop with a baited hook above the jig for added attraction. This way you keep within the two hook rule most rockfish fisheries abide by.


Looking for bigger fish? As mentioned, try a Single Drooper Loop HD if you’re searching for big rockfish and lingcod using a lure or jig on the bottom clip rather than a sinker to stay legal. This rig is tied with the same high-quality components as its two-hook relative.



A big lure or jig imitating a bait fish, squid or octopus is more selective in terms of targeting the bigger fish. You may have to wait longer for a bite, but it’s likely to be a good one when it comes up. Rockfish tacos for days.

 

Best Livebait Stinger Rig for BIG Rockfish, Lingcod and California Halibut Fishing


For live bait fishing for rockfish and especially big lingcod and California halibut, the best setup is a Stinger Rig.


This single dropper-style Stinger Rig features a single treble hook and single 4/0 J hook on a single strand of line. You can use a live bait like a mackerel, sanddab, small whitefish, small rockfish, squid or similar legal bait. The sanddab live bait below is ready to be deployed on the Stinger Rig HD for a big rockfish or lingcod.


 rockfish fishing rigs live bait rig stinger rig sand dab live bait setup
Rockfish live bait rig with a sand dab live bait ready to be sent down.

Note how the J hook is hooked through the lip, whilst the treble hook is lightly hooked in the middle of the back. Game over for the next rockfish that tries to eat this bait... The 50-pound fluorocarbon branch is tied to a three-way swivel with a single branch of 40-pound mono to attach the sinker to. It's a killer rig for trophy rockfish.

Designed and tested to be reliable and durable fish catchers anywhere on the West Coast, these are the rigs to take if you’re looking to come home with a cooler full of giant fillets for tasty fish tacos. You'll likely win the boat jackpot, too!


The trophy lingcod below was caught on this rig and a sand dab live-bait on a Stinger Rig.

Lingcod rockfish rig
A big lingcod caught on a Stinger HD Rig with a sanddab live bait off San Diego.

I hope this guide to some of the best rockfish rigs, setups and baits has helped dispel a few misunderstandings or myths about this fun branch of sport fishing and will put a few nice fish in the cooler for you.


Any questions? Feel free to email me on ben@americanseafishing.com

 

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